“Every moment of your life is a second chance.” ~Rick Price
We are constantly telling ourselves stories about who we are and what we are capable of achieving.
These stories are sometimes the nostalgia of once-upon-a-time that whispers longingly to us. The stories can be the remnants of hardened pain that want us to trace over the lines of old scars. They can also be the tales we invent about imagined futures—what we think will happen.
All of the narratives that we repeat to ourselves—both of the fiction and nonfiction varieties—are what we internalize and use to create self-identity.
Wait a minute. We use fiction to shape our self-identity?! That sounds crazy.
Yep. We do, and probably more than any one of us would like to admit.
The stories we tell ourselves about our shortcomings and failures fuel the negative self-talk that leads us to accept the myth of a single narrative—a belief in only one version of what our life can look like. We cast ourselves as a character locked in an inescapable maze, saddled with baggage we can not remove, riddled with flaws and insurmountable challenges.
It’s our interpretation of the past and how we project the future that determines the roads we take to all of our tomorrows.
These stories can either lift us up or lock us down. They inspire us to reach for more or they make us stuck. The narratives inevitably shape who we become.
Our storytelling begins at a young age.
There’s the narrative of your childhood dreams, the one where a kid like me thought she’d become a singer or an Olympic ice skater, own a house in Malibu, and have a Barbie doll body and an endless supply of money and youth.
Of course I neglected to consider the fact that I couldn’t sing or ice skate, had no desire to learn, and that Barbie’s body is make-believe. None of that would have deterred six-year-old me though. I felt truly unstoppable during my childhood.
But it passed in the blink of an eye.
Childhood narratives faded and gave way to the hormonally-charged teenage years. The boundless optimism of my imagination receded as my body changed and life shifted from the slow-moving days of childhood to the volatile ups and downs of being a teen.
This is when my narratives became toxic. My social life determined the tempo of my weeks, and my identity started to become intertwined with how I felt about my desirability to boys.
I was a walking powder keg of emotions who somehow managed to earn good grades and visibly held it together. But on the inside, I was beating myself up to the tune of the dangerous stories I told myself: not good enough, not good enough, not good enough.
I decided early on that I would never be as cool as the popular girls. I would never be skinny enough or pretty enough, and I wouldn’t even be smart enough to compete with the nerds. I would perpetually feel like I was falling short in all categories of my life.
Those negative affirmations increased as an adult. My future projections about what my life would look like were often rooted in fear, anxiety, and stress about the present.
A soundtrack of negative self-talk played non-stop in my head, reminding me about everything I was not, and everything I couldn’t do.
I’m a failure.
I’m too ugly.
I don’t deserve it.
Not smart enough.
I make bad choices.
I am a bad wife and a bad mother.
It’s not my turn yet.
I can never do that.
I will never have that.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Whenever something went wrong, I blamed myself. We have this urge to blame someone for our problems, and like many people, I turned myself into my personal scapegoat. I would throw myself under the bus.
We perpetuate a narrative of hopelessness that makes us believe we are victims with problems that are unique to us. Scarcity mentality tricks us into believing that we can never have what we want. We think we are abnormal and defective and forget that we are merely human.
The terrible stories win. Those are the ones we become attached to and believe.
They are us.
We are them.
It is difficult to separate who we are apart from those narratives because we spend so much time repeating those stories over and over again.
I was thirty-four-years-old when I woke up one morning in April 2016 and had my story unexpectedly and irreparably changed.
I found my husband unconscious on the living room floor. My six-year-old, three-year-old, and one-year-old were asleep in the nearby bedrooms while the firemen tried to resuscitate my husband before they whisked him away to the nearest hospital.
By the time I followed the ambulance, a doctor met me at the entrance of the ER and greeted me with, “Nothing we could do.”
My husband was dead.
I would later find out that he had an aortic aneurysm and went quickly. There was nothing we could have done.
And just like that, the life that I had on autopilot was over.
I always experienced negative self-talk, but now I was living the real life horror story of being a young widow and single mother.
There was nothing more shredding to my identity than getting forced into a story that for once wasn’t the terrible fiction I usually concocted about myself. This was my terrible reality.
I couldn’t see any hope for the future. It felt too daunting and terrifying to even contemplate. Happiness felt like a cruel joke.
I defaulted to blaming myself. I spun narratives to explain why I was in that situation, and why I deserved to be miserable and unhappy.
I needed something to help me understand why I did everything I was supposed to do in my life and still got this crappy hand from the universe. There had to be a reason why I was alone while everyone else got to go home to their significant others.
My answer to those burning questions was to throw myself under the bus again.
I must have deserved this.
I was probably destined to live a miserable life.
I would feel shame and get judged by society, and I deserved all of it. Single motherhood would be hard and it would make me a societal outcast amongst my social circles. I would become just another sad, overburdened single parent.
My children would suffer and be damaged by not having a father. I would single-handedly ruin their happy childhoods by not being able to live up to the staggering amount of responsibility required to raise a large family on my own.
I would never accomplish the things I wanted to do in my life. I’d have to trade in those dreams for survival and my soul would wither. I would deserve it.
I would never find another person to love me. I was now damaged goods with too much baggage. I would die lonely.
I would always be mired in struggle. And I would drown in my fears. The pain would throb forever. It could kill me. I would never feel better. I didn’t even want to live. I would never be happy again.
The nasty voice whispered to my subconscious, wanting me to believe this version of my life. It begged me to accept an exile to the wasteland of a life I did not choose. In the midst of my despair, it seemed easier to give in to that story.
Later I would realize that I had to get it out of my system. Acknowledge the pain. Recognize the thoughts and emotions.
Feel all of it.
And then, let them all go.
What if we just flat out said no to a narrative that we didn’t want to believe? What if we rejected terrible narratives about ourselves?
I didn’t want to die a sad widow forced to accept an eternity of unhappiness. I didn’t want to give up my dreams and goals. I didn’t want to be alone forever.
There was only one thing to do: rewrite the future and reclaim my life.
Instead of capitulating to our darker thoughts, we can become a gatekeeper who chooses what to let in and what has to pass through.
Negative thoughts are normal, but instead of holding on to them and becoming attached to those narratives, a healthier alternative is to let those thoughts float in and float out. Hold on to the ones that make you optimistic about life—let those be the ones that grow and take root in your subconscious.
Tell those stories every day.
Instead of believing the narratives that tell us what we can’t do, we can choose to focus on what is in our control. When we don’t like a narrative, we can write new ones.
Narrative two. Or a narrative three or four or five or whatever it takes to get to the version of your life story where you are going to be okay, you are important and worthy, and you can live a happy life no matter what happens. Living a life of your own design. One that is true to your authentic self.
The life you wanted. Not a life that you got stuck in.
At any given moment, we can make the next choice to move us closer to our personal goals. It doesn’t have to be a monumental choice—just a tiny baby step in the direction of where your goal sits brightly on the horizon.
That is all you need. Moving toward a new narrative, even at the slowest of speeds, is all you have to worry about.
It doesn’t mean that life will necessarily go as planned. It doesn’t mean that we won’t ever experience bad things.
Over and over and over again.
Choosing an alternate narrative is a way to make the best out of what we have to work with in our lives.
It took a good year after my husband died for me to feel open to creating a new narrative. I had to choose to leave behind the story about myself where I was given a death sentence of misery and obstacles.
To be able to leave that narrative behind, I had to trust that there were many more narratives in my future, even when I couldn’t always see the details or know what direction they would take me in. I had to embrace the idea that there were still many more chapters in the story of my life.
When I was ready to turn off the depressing noise in my head about who I thought I was as a pathetic single mother and widow, I began to brainstorm the positive things I had going on in my life. This was the prelude to my Narrative two.
-I was thankful that I got to share almost ten years of my life with my husband. I learned so much from him, and I feel like a better person for having known him and experiencing the loss of him. This was part of my story, not the end of it.
-I was thankful for the three children we had together. I wanted to become a mother ever since I was a little girl. I thank my late husband for these gifts, and I will be intentional about how I enjoy my time raising the children and enjoying their childhoods. I will savor motherhood, even when times are tough and stressful. I will focus more on my joy with them rather than the tediousness of single parenthood.
-I never thought I would get married to begin with, but I did. I will trust that when I meet someone worth losing my single status to, it will happen. Just like it happened the first time. Until then, I will enjoy living my life on my terms, as a whole person regardless of my relationship status.
-There are pros and cons to everything in life. I might as well take advantage of the benefits of being single and seek a life that I wouldn’t have had while I was married to my husband. I can explore new interests and take the time to reflect about who I am and what I want. I can pursue goals. This isn’t the life I chose, but I can still enjoy the unexpected benefits of being alone. In the end, this time will make me a better person.
This past summer I was on vacation in Australia. My children and I spent an evening watching the penguin parade on Phillip Island, near Melbourne. Every night when the sun set, thousands of the world’s smallest penguins swim back to the shore and waddle across the sand to find a place to sleep for the night.
We got to sit literally a foot away from where the penguins passed by. We listened to their noises as they called out to each other in the darkness. The Antarctic winds whipped across our faces.
It suddenly struck me. This is Narrative two.
I’m living it. Right now. Here.
It isn’t what I originally planned for my life. I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own—I would have rather had my husband here with us instead. But this is good too. This was me doing what I wanted to do, seeing the world, raising my children, experiencing beautiful things. Narrative two was not an exile.
It was an opportunity to rewrite my story. A story worth living, even after the tragedy that threatened to destroy me.
If you can believe in multiple paths, you can change your narrative.
If you can believe that whatever you don’t know, you can learn—it will happen.
If you have a willingness to try new things, you can change your narrative.
If you can take the time to figure out your preferences, it can happen. What do you like to do? What feels like enchantment in your life?
If you can believe in yourself, you can write any narrative you want.
And when something changes and the story isn’t what you want anymore, you can keep writing new ones. You don’t have to be a hostage to any narrative. Give yourself permission.
Tell yourself the stories about those times when you were courageous. Tell stories about your strength, perseverance, and resilience. Tell stories about how strong you are.
Tell the stories of your survival. The ones where you got through the hardest of times and experienced joy again. The stories where you knew in your bones that life was worth living.
You have those stories. Those are the ones to repeat.
Tell them over and over again so you never forget who you really are.
About Teresa Shimogawa
Teresa Shimogawa is a human being trying to do good things in the world. She is also a young widow who wants to be remembered as someone who turned her pain into something beautiful. You can find more of her writing at www.houseofteresa.com.